In a sign that US cinema is going through a bit of a rough patch right now, the cancelled release of Universal Pictures’ The Hunt following a tweet by Donald Trump has met with little uproar.
It seems Universal had already been going through something of a nightmare to market the premise of the film, which sees “elite liberals” hunting “deplorables” with guns. Following the shootings in Dayton and El Paso, the studio came under further pressure, due to the movie’s subject matter. After the president called the film “racist” (sight unseen, of course), the studio promptly nixed it altogether, sayingthat “after thoughtful consideration, the studio has decided to cancel our plans to release the film. We stand by our film-makers and will continue to distribute films in partnership with bold and visionary creators, like those associated with this satirical social thriller, but we understand that now is not the right time to release this film.”
Let’s pause for a moment to enjoy the brazen doublethink of the proposition “we stand by our film-makers” in a statement about torpedoing the work of film-makers. The response to this overt act of censorship has been muted, and even – in the film trade bible Variety – supportive. In what is being described by some as a “thinkpiece”, the publication’s chief film critic Owen Gleiberman argues that the American left needs to counter rightwing demagoguery not by going after easy targets (which he has decided this film does, without seeing it) but “with its own (moral) form of entertainment. That is, with a presidential candidate who can match Donald Trump in sheer charismatic force.”
There are many naive aspects of this article to single out, but the most egregious is the idea, which Gleiberman buys, that Trump and the entertainment industry/Hollywood are naturally in opposition to one another. His assertion that the left is currently winning the argument on gun control is one for somebody with a steadier nervous system than mine to take on. The fallacy of a left and right binary where liberals compose the artistic elite and Trump’s people compose the abandoned “other” of America, is never addressed in the piece. This shows that Trump’s propaganda is working as a great deal of Hollywood is rightwing and reactionary, and racism is hardly absent from the film industry.
This position scarcely gives Gleiberman much ground to argue that Hollywood should stop playing “the right’s game on the right’s own terms”, since he openly backs Trump’s false premise. What “the right” might mean here is unclear and undefined, but let’s suppose it to mean Fox News, the so-called “alt-right” of Breitbart et al and the president. On the contrary, it is the very cancellation of this film that plays to rightwing dogma. Standing up for artists’ liberty of expression, at a time when the president attacks journalists, creatives and minorities, would clearly be a pointed rejoinder to Trump’s divisive rhetoric. Furthermore, the concept of satire itself seems to be in need of a little boost at the minute, at a time when the concept of “fake news”, as piggybacked on by the president, makes a dangerous amalgamation of disinformation on one hand and op-eds, satire and journalistic errors on the other.
Cancelling The Hunt is reminiscent of the BoJack Horseman episode Thoughts and Prayers, in which a studio is struggling to put out a violent murder-fest, at a time when there are shootings in the US every five minutes. The movie industry is portrayed with an acrid eye by the show, which depicts a cynical company attempting to profit from tragedy. But this is the situation now being spun by the president, in exactly those blunt, cartoonish terms. We now have a studio caving to the demands of a powerful politician and implicitly accepting his denunciation of them as “racist”.
It seems that Trump’s strategy – a relentless offensive melding nonsense, idiocy, overt racism, dog-whistles, invective and lies – is having the desired effect of wearing down his opponents. Gleiberman is right in that they are struggling to find ways to attack him. The he-sounds-stupid satire of Saturday Night Live and all of the New Yorker’s pert cartoons depicting the president as a Cheshire Cat are hardly pummelling the president where it hurts. But kowtowing to political machinations by censoring artists is not the right strategy to gain the high ground, and critics and arts commentators should be unequivocal in condemning this deeply worrying capitulation.
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